If it is size that you’re after, then king crab – the largest edible crab in the world – is the crustacean for you. Capable of reaching weights of 10kg, this largest member of the spider crab family is becoming increasingly popular with consumers in a growing number of markets.
King crab is most commonly eaten straight from the shell with warm butter or a light sauce, which is why this high-end seafood is mostly sold in sections – as frozen cooked legs and claws that are simply thawed and steamed or eaten cold.
Predominantly found in a broad stretch of cold North Pacific and Atlantic locations – from southeast Alaska to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula – there are three species of king crab to be fished commercially: red (Paralithodes camtschatica), blue (Paralithodes platypus) and brown (Lithodes aequispina).
With legs that can span 1.8 metres, red kings are the larger of the species and are by far the biggest resource, accounting for more than 80% of the total global king crab catch.
The slightly smaller blue king, can be distinguished from its red cousin by the more pronounced dark colouring on the tip of its legs. But since the blue king turns red when cooked, most consumers can’t tell the difference between the two and so they tend to sell for the same price.
The smallest of the three, the brown king, can easily be distinguished by its reddish-orange colour on its legs (the underside of red and blue king crab legs are a creamy white). Brown king crabs usually sell at a lower price because they typically have a lower meat content.
As well as these three varieties, there is also the red sub-species Lithodes santolla – widely known as the ‘southern king crab’. These crustaceans are found off the Pacific coasts of South America, caught between the start of July and the end of November. Pittman Seafoods sources this particular crab from Chile, favouring the inherently high shell-to-meat ratio as well as its sweet, delicate flavour.
While for many people king crab is synonymous with Alaska, where the iconic fishery was developed in the Gulf of Alaska in the early 1950s, the main supplier to the global market today is Russia, where the product is also known as the ‘Kamchatka crab’. Indeed Russia accounts for around half of the overall king crab supply, and has in particular made strong trade inroads in a number of important markets in Asia.
The country’s king crab trade has also been boosted by significant increases in its recent quotas. Following a 20% increase in the total allowable catch (TAC) for 2016, the quota was raised by a further 27% for 2017 to 13,022 tonnes. Of this latest allowable catch, the country’s main fishing ground of western Kamchatka received a 30% increase to 8,574 tonnes, while the Kamchatka-Kuril area’s quota was raised 29% to 3,276 tonnes.
Russia has two king crab catching seasons – winter (January to April) and late summer (September to December).
King crab are mainly caught in pots and only the males, which are much larger than females, are fished. Once pulled up, the crabs are either processed onboard catcher-processor vessels or delivered live to shore-based or floating processors. After being processed into sections, the products are cooked and frozen. Secondary processors also cut sections into single legs, while a small, but growing volume of king crab is shipped live or fresh and command premium prices.
In line with the growing international demand for this delicacy and the relatively static global supply, king crab prices have been very high in recent seasons.
At the end of last year, it was announced that Russian red king crab producers in the Barents Sea had started preparations for certification in accordance with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainability standard after successfully passing a preliminary assessment.
This fishery’s certification client, the Association of Crab Catchers of North, was established as a non-profit organisation in 1992 and currently operates 10 crab vessels, used to carry crab from the fishing ground in the Russian Economic Zone (REZ) to Murmansk. The fishery harvests around 6,380 tonnes of red king crab with most of its product sold within Russia as well as to the EU, US and China.
The Chilean crab fishery, meanwhile, is fully managed by SERNAPESCA, the governing body for all fishing activities in the country, with capture and landings tightly controlled under stringent environmental standards and protection policies.